Saturday, 14 May 2011

A pathetic victory and its aftermath

AND finally, the verdict has come. Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) has won a simple majority in the most closely and fiercely fought Assembly election in Kerala’s political history by bagging 72 seats out of the total 140. The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by the CPI(M), is closely behind with 68 seats. With the new rulers all set to take over in a few days from now, it will be interesting to examine what the future holds for the country’s most politically sensitive state.

Given the political constitution of the UDF, which is led by the Congress, this is not definitely a comfortable, workable majority. Also, it’s not a mandate for change altogether, nor is it a verdict for the status quo. An ever-belligerent V S Achuthanandan, who led the charge for the LDF, has been able to weather and even neutralise the anti-incumbency factor to a large extent. Further, the election campaign has exposed many a chink in the armour of the Congress. There was a unique situation where both the Opposition Leader and the Pradesh Congress Committee chief are in the fray. Even the stand-in captaincy of Union Defence Minister A K Antony has failed to catapult the UDF into a comfortable tally.

Interestingly, the CPI(M) has emerged as the single largest party in the 13th Kerala Assembly, winning 45 seats while the Congress has ended up with just 38 seats. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a UDF constituent, has won 20 of the 24 seats it contested. The Kerala Congress (Mani), another UDF ally, has managed to win nine seats. The Congress has no MLAs from four districts. Also, the LDF has managed to establish a clear led in eight of the 14 districts. LDF’s clean sweep in the districts of Kollam and Alappuzha and also its domination in Pathanamthitta clearly show that the last minute manipulative shift in the equidistance policy of the NSS in favour of the UDF has had no impact on the voting pattern. But at the same time, Kottayam district has reaffirmed its well-known status as a ‘political parish’.

As every single MLA counts in the given situation, it is just a matter of time before the UDF allies come up with unreasonable demands including undue numbers of Cabinet berths, key portfolios and even deputy chief ministership. Undoubtedly, it is going to be a stormy, bumpy ride for the Congress leadership.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that Oommen Chandy is not very much willing to accept the CM’s position in the current scenario. In fact, what haunts the post-Karunakaran Congress the most is the dearth of leaders with manipulative and persuasive skills that would match his. Compared to the Congress, the leadership of the IUML and KC(M) are stronger and well-knit. They are more than capable of serving as powerful pressure groups within the coalition, extracting whatever they want. Needless to say, stability of governance will be at stake big time.

K M Mani has already fired the first salvo declaring publicly that he had to pay a heavy political price to the Congress on account of his party’s merger with the faction led by P J Joseph. P C George, Mani’s own protégé, followed suit taking a dig at the ‘decrepit invalids’ (read K R Gowri and M V Raghavan) who contested and lost. Of course, all these bickerings are just the dress rehearsal for the wider farce that is soon to be played out.

At the end of the day, the UDF has ‘suffered’ a pathetic victory and the LDF has ‘won’ a gracious defeat. Though the LDF has fallen short of a simple majority by a whisker, V S Achuthanandan emerges as a grand, majestic figure, nay, a superpower, in the post-poll scenario of the state as well as in the internal politics of the CPI(M). Those who are preparing to lead the new government should remember that V S the opposition leader will be many times more powerful than V S the chief minister.

Friday, 11 March 2011

A dirty game

Kerala has the significant, if not dubious, distinction of being the most politicised state in the country. Every major development in any corner of the world would be debated vigorously and at length in the state’s intellectual and social circles. But now, with the elections to the state Assembly having been notified (the state will go to the polls on April 13), a curious phenomenon has emerged. Sleaze, corruption and probity in politics have grabbed the centre stage of the state’s pre-poll discourse as never before.

For decades, Kerala’s political scene has been dominated by two coalitions: the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the CPI(M) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). And the electorate is known for changing their preference between these two every five years. This time too, the opposition UDF had a clear edge until a few weeks ago, after decisive wins in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and the local body polls held late last year.

All hell broke loose with a couple of ‘revelations’ made by K A Rauf, a businessman, hardly a month prior to the declaration of the election dates. Rauf is a close relative of P K Kunhalikutty, a prominent leader of the Indian Union Muslim League which is a major constituent of the UDF. He alleged that the ice cream parlour sex racket case involving Kunhalikutty had been sabotaged by bribing the witnesses, victims and even two judges of the High Court of Kerala. Some video footages too appeared on a local TV channel in support of Rauf’s claims.

Immediately after this episode, R Balakrishna Pillai, another UDF leader, was sentenced to a year of rigorous imprisonment by the Supreme Court in a graft case. A ‘hero’s welcome’ was accorded to Pillai by the UDF in Kottarakkara, his home town, which in turn led to a still bigger row. K Sudhakaran, the Congress MP from Kannur who spoke at the meeting, claimed that he was witness to an episode where a Supreme Court judge had accepted bribe to reinstate the pub licences quashed by the Kerala High Court in the early 90s. Several questions were raised on the MP’s own role in the murky deal and a New Delhi-based lawyers’ organisation has moved a contempt of court petition against him before the Supreme Court.

Close on the heels of this controversy, Congress leader and former state civil supplies minister T H Musthafa, who is also an accused in the palm oil import graft case, filed a discharge petition before the Vigilance court in Thiruvananthapuram. In the petition, Musthafa contended that the decision to import palm oil was a collective one of the state cabinet, which was taken to mean that he alone should not be targeted because the-then finance minister and present leader of opposition Oommen Chandy was left out from the list of the accused.

The ruling LDF, which was clearly on the back foot facing a strong anti-incumbency mood after a series of electoral reverses, seized the opportunity and launched a fresh offensive against the opposition citing all these episodes. The UDF, deeply perturbed by this sudden avalanche of setbacks, had to go on the defensive for some time in between. But in a week, they started the counter-offensive by directly targeting chief minister V S Achuthanandan and his son V A Arunkumar, a state government official. The strategy was to ruin the image of the chief minister who commands mass appeal. And the game of mudslinging is going on and on.

Interestingly, both the fronts are yet to come up with their manifestos. Still it looks as if the agenda for the campaign has already been set. Dirt is mounting every passing day, with debates on TV and other public venues turning into slinging matches. The mega scams reported at the national level too are figuring in the debates.

This sharp shift in focus has generated a counter-debate in the social circles. A Catholic archbishop from south Kerala came up with an observation that it is more advisable to support atheists who adhere to values rather than tainted believers in the elections. It may be noted that the Christian minority has always been a reliable support base for the UDF.

Needless to say, this kind of negativism effectively edges out any healthy debate on crucial issues in the run-up to the elections. Several key sectors in the state like education, health, industry etc still lack reform-oriented development.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Constitution ‘modified’

We have one more instance of the freedom of expression getting stifled by a democratically (oppressively democratic or democratically oppressive, we don’t know!) elected state government.

Former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh’s new book Jinnah - India, Partition, Independence has been banned by the Gujarat government. The reason - the book denigrates the image of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first Home Minister, who hails from Gujarat and is held in high esteem by most people in India.

Well, why is the Narendra Modi administration so much worried about the image of Sardar Patel now, a good 59 years after his death? Any historic document, any treatise written on his role in building up the nation would tell us that Patel is a national icon, a great hero of Indian independence. And also, history has it that most of the Congress leaders of the time, including Mahatma Gandhi, were party to the decision to bifurcate India as they thought it was the best possible option to avert a wide-scale Hindu-Muslim civil war, let alone Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru.

It’s a fact that Jaswant’s book attacks Patel and Nehru quite fiercely in the name of partition. He writes: “...Jinnah did not win Pakistan, as the Congress leaders – Nehru and Patel finally conceded Pakistan to Jinnah, with the British acting as an ever helpful midwife.” On a different note, what would have been the plight of the country now if the geographical area now known as Pakistan was still part of the Indian republic?

Jaswant seems to hold that partition was a big injustice done to the body politic of India and people like Nehru and Patel presided over such a decision taken by the Indian National Congress, betraying the trust of an entire nation and its people. But still, he has the right to uphold and publicise his views on any individual, or any aspect of the history as long as they don’t hurt the sentiments of any particular faith or religion.

Now, is there anyone who is above criticism in this country, anyone living or dead? Gandhi? Nehru? Or, Netaji Bose? None of the above. But yes, there are people like MS Golwalkar, Veer Savarkar and, of course, Sardar Patel, who should never be criticised, we realise. (Patel has been ‘elevated’ to this league only now, in fact.)

The message is quite obvious. The self-styled Hindu nationalist elements are becoming increasingly intolerant to criticism as time passes. Just take into consideration the history of Europe and other western countries. George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan wouldn’t have been possible until at least late Eighteenth Century given the violent and oppressive history of the Catholic Church. The same fate would have met The Da Vinci Code, a daring critique on the age-old practices of the Church, as well had Dan Brown been alive two centuries back and he had chosen to write it then.

We wake up to a bitter realisation here. India, and the forces who claim to uphold its great tradition, are travelling back on time when it comes to allowing freedom of speech and expression in the society.

Maybe, Modi is bidding to regain some lost ground by being specifically nationalistic, being very much aware of his waning clout among the masses. After all, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is heading from crisis to crisis every passing day. (It has already proved itself to be a temporary phenomenon in Indian politics.) Also, the BJP has lost a seminal leader (without mass appeal though) with the expulsion of Jaswant Singh. And, when his party stands only to lose in the latest Jinnah controversy, Modi looks desperate to gain at least something from the whole episode.

But, democracy is all about peaceful co-existence of varying views and concepts. It’s supposed to be an institution where everyone has equal rights to speak up and be part of the social discourse freely and fearlessly. Only a fascist administration can suppress and forbid criticism and opposition.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Third Front – stability at stake

Election fever is slowly gripping the country.

The next general elections are, of course, due by early next year as the new government has to be installed by the month of May going by the schedule.

But speculation is rife that the ruling Congress, which leads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition, may go for early polls on the back of the highly populist measures in the Union Budget for 2008-09 and also some other drastic measures like the possible signing of the nuclear deal with the United States; an agreement which the Congress managers believe will take the country a long way in terms of energy security.

Sensing the spirit of the situation, some of the leading players in the country’s political scene have started talking about forming new coalitions and tie-ups. The run-up to the elections happens to be the most favoured season for establishing new equations and liaisons. Among the rest, the CPI(M) has started efforts aimed at reviving the Third Front as a viable alternative to the UPA and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

While addressing the CPI(M)’s 19th Congress at Coimbatore recently, party general-secretary Prakash Karat said: “The need for a third alternative is being felt all the more…It cannot be a mere electoral alliance. We have learnt from our experience of the earlier formations such as the United Front of 1996-98.”

The Left parties – read the CPI(M), the CPI, the RSP and the Forward Bloc – have committed a virtual political suicide by choosing to support the UPA at the Centre as they take on the Congress at the election front in their strongholds such as West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. They need to do a lot of explaining to convince their committed rank and file and sympathisers over the rationale of such a decision.

The CPI(M), the largest among the Left parties in the country, itself is in an unenviable position. Even after offering unconditional support to the UPA government all these years, the party is far from being impressed over its performance if Karat’s words are any indication. He feels that the government has failed to address vital issues like the agrarian crisis and the steep rise in prices of essential commodities. He also alleged that the Union Government pursued economic policies which benefit big businesses and the affluent. “The overall thrust has been on liberalisation and privatisation,” he said.

It is this dilemma which has prompted Karat and his comrades to take the lead in the attempt to resurrect the long-defunct Third Front once again. It’s not that the Left leader is unaware of the difficulties involved in reaching the magic figure of 272 (the numbers required for a simple majority) in the Lok Sabha with only the non-Congress and non-BJP parties on board his bandwagon. He has already had the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) along with him and hopes to rope in a few more influential regional parties such as the DMK, the National Conference and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP).

And, even if the Third Front becomes a reality and manages a majority in the Lok Sabha after the elections (which looks quite a distant possibility), the biggest question will involve the stability and longevity of such an experiment. With their damn narrow regional outlook and approaches, most of their allies in the prospective Third Front would prove to be perennial headaches for the champions of the experiment. Even national parties like the Congress and the BJP have a history of wrecking coalition governments at the Centre.

Stability doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding elections for a period of five years and save Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion) for the exchequer. But it means a lot more and is quite vital for a fast-growing economy like India. For ensuring continuity in policies and economic outlook; for carrying out welfare measures in a proper manner; for maintaining the pace of Gross Domestic Product (GDP); for having a good inflow of foreign capital and a healthy stock market -- stability of governance is a pre-requisite.

The global economy is being shaken by the onset of a recession in the US and the financial crisis is spreading around the world. Still the South Asian economies remain more or less unaffected so far. But the International Monetary Fund has already lowered India’s GDP growth rate forecast to 7.9% in 2008, against the Finance Ministry’s hope of maintaining an average growth rate of 8.8%. This is nothing short of an alarm signal.

It may be recalled that PV Narasimha Rao’s government (1991-96) was able to salvage the country from the jaws of the worst-ever economic crisis in history just because there was political stability all along the five years.

The writing on the wall is quite clear: the nation and its economy crave for a few more decades of political stability.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The Republic at 60 – least expectations

The Republic of India is turning 60 in a year from now. And, for a country which is often hailed as the biggest democracy in the world, it’s the track record in the promotion of human rights and availability of opportunities that should count rather than the mere percentage of people who exercise their franchise every five years, or even more frequently.

But still, the popular concept, nay the myth, goes that ‘participatory democracy’ is the cornerstone of any so-called democratic polity. But participation is often limited to voting, leaving governance to politicians and bureaucrats.

The claims regarding the achievements India has had during the last six decades of existence as a democracy merit stark comparison with its western counterparts – especially the US and the UK.

Drinking is very much a social activity in Europe and elsewhere in the West. And, UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling has gone for quite a ‘drastic’ measure – he raised the duty on alcohol in his Budget.

The result – he has now been barred from entering some of the pubs in the UK. A bar in Edinburgh has put up a poster that reads: "Barred. We hereby give notice that Alastair [sic] Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer, is barred from this pub until further notice." And, an internet campaign is going on in support of a nationwide pub ban on the Head of the Treasury.

Well, imagine the same thing happening in India where Finance Minister P. Chidambaram effects a steep hike in the tax on alcohol or any other essential commodity (alcohol too happens to be one these days, we should say), will any individual establishment or organisation in the country dare to clamp such a ban on him? That explains how vibrant and freewheeling a democracy the United Kingdom is.

Yet another event in the West has been capturing much media attention for the last couple of months: the race for winning the nomination of major political parties to run for the White House. Even the candidates for the presidency are elected after a rigorous democratic process.

Now, come to the world’s biggest democracy, and there you can witness a rarest of the rare phenomena. One gentleman is made the Prime Minister one fine morning without even having to face the electorate. And the guy who lost the Lok Sabha elections has been entrusted with the all-important, all-powerful portfolio of Home Affairs.

Interestingly, Dr Manmohan Singh holds the rare distinction of being the only Indian premier who never faced the voters in a public election. On both the occasions when he was in power – during 1991-96 as Finance Minister and the current innings as Prime Minister – he managed to make a backdoor entry to the Parliament through the Rajya Sabha. Maybe it’s constitutionally valid, but the big ethical question remains unanswered.

Of course, it’s very difficult to fit the definition of the term democracy into the state of affairs prevailing in India. Maybe, Rousseau was preaching an utopia while dwelling on ‘participatory democracy’. Abraham Lincoln sounded too idealistic envisaging ‘a government of the people, by the people, for the people’. But Bernard Shaw was more or less prophetic while defining democracy as ‘a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve’.

To a large extent, it’s the organisational grooming of the Indian National Congress that is responsible for the stifling of inner-party democracy in the country’s political landscape. Most of the parties in the opposition, a good number of them break-away groups from the Congress, too go for the nomination option when it comes to the election of office-bearers. The Left parties – especially the CPI(M) and the CPI – who conduct organisational elections from the grassroots level to the top on a regular basis are the only exception.

At 60, any democracy should have come of age. But the Indian democracy is still in its infancy when it comes to several important aspects. The Right to Information Act remains mostly on paper. Apartheid-like situations prevail in some remote north Indian villages even now. State-sponsored encounter killings are rampant. But still, we take pride for being the citizens of the world’s biggest democracy.

The latest Gandhi incarnation is all set to take over the reins of the country’s leading political organisation. And Rahul has already started talking about the need for restoring inner-party democracy in his party. Let’s hope the mindset for a change is not for the worse, and the initial enthusiasm prevails.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Adieu Abby Mann

"... a writer worth his salt has an obligation not only to entertain but to comment on the world in which he lives, not only to comment, but maybe have a shot at reshaping the world."

Abby Mann while accepting his Academy Award (1961)